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Salem councilors discuss controversial development, future of abandoned tannery sites

Posted by Ryan Mooney  July 12, 2012 08:48 AM

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A proposed 141-unit apartment complex on the site of the former Salem Oil and Grease factory continues to draw the ire of city councilors and residents as the time draws near for the Planning Board to make a decision, but it is also shedding light on a much larger problem among city officials.

The project in question - the Legacy Park Apartments - was made possible by an ordinance the council passed in 2009 that allows residences as part of a Planned Unit Development (PUD) to be built in a business park zone provided, among other things, that residential living makes up only 50 percent or less of the development.

The ordinance failed to pass the first time it was introduced in 2008, and only passed after the 50 percent stipulation, as well as a limit on how tall a PUD can be, were added.

But it appears now that a breakdown in communication at some point in the process - be it with the language of the written ordinance, miscommunication between the Planning and Zoning boards, people distorting the council's intent, or a combination of it all - has led to the possibility of a large residential development in the Blubber Hollow Neighborhood that seemingly nobody wants.

"The [ordinance] we passed and the one that's written are two different things," said Ward 2 Councilor Mike Sosnowski, chairman of the committee on ordinances, licenses and legal affairs. "This is a mess. This is a huge mess."

Sosnowski takes issue with the fact that not only is the written ordinance not worded the way it should be, but that Planning Board members who were present when the ordinance was passed might allow this development - which councilors say blatantly violates the 50 percent rule - move forward.

The council began a potentially months-long process of amending or possibly repealing the ordinance at a meeting on Wednesday night, but to do so now would have no effect on the $20 million Legacy Park project proposed by MRM Project Management. If the Planning Board allows it, the project will move forward, much to the chagrin of neighbors.

"They want to redevelop it but they want to redevelop it with less intense development," said Jim Treadwell. Treadwell, one of two area residents present at Wednesday's meeting, is part of the Mack Park Neighborhood Association.

"I think they support the council's intent on having most of it promoting business," he added.

The decision the council faces now is whether to attempt to amend the ordinance or remove it entirely. There are eight other parcels of land similar to Salem Oil and Grease site scatted throughout the city, mostly remnants of the city's once flourishing leather industry.

Some councilors argue that an amendment would be best because it allows companies flexibility at the often-contaminated sites, which are expensive to develop.

"In [repealing it] I think we might be limiting some of the tools we have that can get some of these properties done," Ward 5 Councilor Josh Turiel said.

Others argue that repealing the ordinance is the way to go because leaving the sites abandoned will actually save the city money over adding more residences due to the cost of public services as more and more people move in to future developments.

"I personally believe that it's better to do nothing on these as they sit right now because we'll lose less money in the long term than in the short term," Ward 3 Councilor Todd Siegel said.

Hanging in the balance is not only the city's commercial tax base, but the ugly, contaminated eyesores of a bygone industrial era.

"We have sites that need to be remediated," Councilor-at-large Kevin Carr said. "We need to be cognizant of that."

Ryan Mooney can be reached at globe.mooney@yahoo.com.

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